Kristine Nielsen Looks to Ghosts to Inform Her Colorful You Can’t Take It With You Matriarch

Last updated November 4th, 2014 by Josh Ferri
Kristine Nielsen Looks to Ghosts to Inform Her Colorful You…

Kristine Nielsen is at it again in the starry Broadway revival of You Can’t Take It With You. And fans of the Tony-nominated comedienne know that means she’s stealing the show with a smile, a shrug and a well-placed pause—as talent such as hers tends to do.

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Who can forget Nielsen's phone call scene or the Maggie Smith impersonation in 2013’s Tony-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike or when she was shot in the cult musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?!

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Photo by Joan Marcus

Now, Nielsen is giving audiences a major ab workout as hilarious and endearing Sycamore matriarch Penelope (Penny) in the classic comedy You Can’t Take It With You. Below, BroadwayBox chats with Nielsen to get the scoop on the three people from her past that inspired her performance most.

I’ll start with a bit of a cliché, but she truly is an inspiration for this: my own mother. She was very inspirational to me only in that she was kind of remarkable and kind of crazy. She was a child of the depression, who managed to create her own world and keep her own identity; she got into politics, working for a variety of congressmen and senators, but always managed to remain positive. She was eccentric and she was so curious about other people. ‘Somebody always has a story to tell, search it out,’ she would say; and I think that’s the curiosity Penny has in this play. Whoever comes and knocks on the door she wants to hear the story. We also had a house painter that came to our house and he moved in for like 15 years. And I feel that’s just like Mr. De Pinna or Charles the milkman in the play, and my mother was just like, ‘Oh, he’s one of us.’

Secondly, I always think of Jason Robards. I had the privilege of working with him on the 1986 production of The Iceman Cometh, and I learned so much through his generosity of spirit backstage. I found his focus on language and rhythm fascinating and inspiring. He believed you should never ignore the music of a piece. I was just talking to a young student about not getting in the way of Kaufman and Hart; making sure you don’t infuse it with a complexity that we have in our time but keep that purity, honesty and simplicity. Jason thought that theatre has the power to change the world and the power to tell a good story, and to not get in the way of the story. So I think of him a lot. James Earl Jones and I talk about the ghosts that hover in a theatre and we feel they are all there—these great ghosts looking at us saying, ‘That was a good one this time.’ I feel that very strongly.

And my third inspiration is another ghost but I love him very much, Nicky Martin. He was such a great director, and I know he loved this play. I feel Nicky knew I was going to do this; I think of him every night. One day David Hyde Pierce and I were having so much trouble with this one laugh, and Nicky just looked at me and said, ‘Maybe you should just ask the question.’ And I thought, ‘Oh gosh, I’m so humiliated because it looks like I am asking for the laugh.’ And I think of him because in a play like this—where you are very aware of laughs and trying to keep the audience as a partner in your banter—you have to keep the truth and tell the story. Ask the true question and the laugh will miraculously be there. So whenever I feel a little adrift in a moment, I’ll just think of Nicholas Martin.

Don't miss the wonderful Kristine Nielsen in You Can't Take It With You at Broadway's Longacre Theatre.